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Restaurant Etiquette and Wine

by David on June 26, 2009

The whole ceremony of ordering and accepting wine can be a little daunting if you’re not familiar with the routine. The trick is in knowing what to expect and remembering that you’re the customer and not to be intimidated. After all, wine is supposed to make the meal more fun!

Smart restaurateurs number the wine list. It’s a lot easier to order #35 than to try to say Gewürtztraminer! Most wine varieties are of European descent and there’s no reason you should be expected to speak perfect French, German, Italian or Spanish. If the list isn’t numbered, and you don’t want to try to pronounce it, it’s perfectly fine to point at what you want.

Selecting the wine

It seems that a lot of people think they’re supposed to know everything about wine and are afraid they’ll look unsophisticated if they ask questions. Absolutely not. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice when you want it. Even with a well known variety like Chardonnay, there’s a great deal of stylistic variability, and there’s no way you can know what every brand on the list will taste like. Tell the server if you like it big and buttery or fruity and fresh, whatever your preference is, and ask for a recommendation.

One of the most challenging things about ordering is choosing a wine that complements different entrees. It’s tricky, but your server should know what the entrees taste like, and be familiar with the different styles of wine on the list. He’s the one best equipped to help you make a good selection, or if not, he should be able to get another staff member to help you. He may direct you toward wines by the glass. It’s a great way to go, especially if you like to share with your friends. You’ll each be exposed to more than one wine style. But failing that, in a good restaurant, the server will know how to bridge the gap between the ahi tuna and the rib-eye steak. Anyway, most people worry about wine and food combinations too much. Wine and food pairing is subjective and the best combinations are a question of personal preference.

When the server brings your wine…

Once the wine is ordered, the server will always bring the wine to the one who placed the order. He should show you the label, so you can make sure you got what you ordered. Check the brand, variety and vintage. Occasionally, the vintage on the list doesn’t match the one on the bottle. If it’s a California wine, it probably won’t make a big difference, but if the wine comes from an area where the climate is more volatile, it may be significant. It’s smart to keep a vintage chart in your pocket. If you Google the phrase “wine vintage chart” there are all kinds of them available, and they are sold at wine shops. Click here for a Napa Valley Vintage Recap.

Checking the cork

Once you’ve given the okay for him to open it, he’ll pull the cork, and set it down to your right, and pour little bit of wine for you to taste. You can check to make sure the information on the label and the cork match. The cork can tell you if the wine has been stored properly. Cork-finished wines should be kept sideways to keep the cork swollen with wine and create a tight seal, so one end should be wet and it should be soft and pliable when you squeeze it-dry and crumbly might raise your antennae. You can check to see if there’s been any seepage. It would leave a stain running the length of the cork and is not a good sign.

If all of this makes you feel silly, don’t do it! There’s absolutely nothing the cork can tell you that the wine can’t tell you better and faster. Even if the wine wasn’t stored properly, it may still be just fine. If you smell the cork, it usually smells like a cork. If anything looks or smells strange, it’s a red flag, but the best way to find out about it is by trying the wine. If something’s gone wrong, the wine can’t hurt you. It may offend you, but it can’t hurt you!

You can skip checking the cork, but please don’t skip checking the wine! There’s a slight chance that it’s off, and you don’t want to pay restaurant prices for a bad bottle.

Checking the wine

In this situation, you’re not evaluating the wine’s character or whether it’s the best possible example of its type. You’re just checking to make sure the wine is sound, so there’s no need to spend a lot of time on it. First, check it for color and clarity. Brown tones don’t bode well. Clarity is a sign of good health, but there are plenty of hazy wines that taste great! Give it a swirl and smell it, then taste it. When you smell the wine, you’re mainly looking for off aromas: mold, vinegar, fingernail polish remover, rotten eggs. And it’s the same when you taste. Just check for vinegar-like sharpness or other off flavors. Many people don’t trust their own taste, but, most likely, if it’s off, you’ll know it!

If this routine makes you wish you’d stuck with water, then you can pare it down further. It’s extremely rare to find a wine that smells good that doesn’t also taste good. This means that you can skip all the other steps and just give it a good sniff. Usually, it smells great and the server can finish serving the wine. Then you can go back to talking to your friends, which is why you went out to dinner in the first place! The server will serve everyone else before he tops up your glass.

If you have any doubt about the wine, ask the server to try it. He or the manager should know the wines on the list, and be able to tell if it’s not right. If you’re sure something’s wrong, just tell the server and politely ask him to bring another bottle. He may want to try it himself, but at a good restaurant, he won’t question your request.

It’s not appropriate to send the bottle back just because you don’t like it. There should be something at fault to justify sending it back. This is another good reason to either tell the server what style you want, or to solicit his advice: better odds that you’ll get something you like.

Bringing your own wine

Increasingly, restaurants allow guests to bring in wine of their own. It’s certainly common here in the Napa Valley, where so many of us entertain clients with yet- to-be released wines. If you want to bring your own wine, it’s smart to call ahead and find out if it’s permitted. If so, the restaurant will probably charge a corkage fee, and you should ask how much it is. Usually the fee is reasonable, in most cases between $10.00 and $25.00. Occasionally, the corkage fee is exorbitant, which is the restaurant’s way of telling you they really don’t want you to bring the wine in. It’s best to know in advance. You should also ask if they carry the wine you want to bring. Some restaurants consider it impolite if you bring in a wine that’s on the list.

So, let’s review:

  1. Wine is supposed to make your evening more fun-not cause a panic attack!
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
  3. Check the bottle before it’s opened to be sure you got what you ordered.
  4. At least smell the wine before accepting it.
  5. Most important of all, have a good time with your friends, food and wine!

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